Rethinking Unemployment: Why We Need to Invest in Children

Feelings of security, confidence, and self-reliance; a supportive relationship with a caring adult --a child needs all of these in order to learn and grow.
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Feelings of security, confidence, and self-reliance; a supportive relationship with a caring adult --a child needs all of these in order to learn and grow. By helping children understand their potential and make good use of their strengths, we can better prepare them for a full, happy life.

These aren't just platitudes -- they are the results of long research into what helps kids succeed. And when they inform our policy, they can help break the generational cycle of poverty. Recently, Mayor de Blasio began phasing out the city's Work Experience Program (WEP), known as workfare, the Giuliani-era program that requires welfare recipients to work low-level city jobs. The move only caused a minor ripple in the press, and won't mean much for the city or for the unemployed poor. (Only 9100 people are enrolled in this program today, compared to 36,000 15 years ago.) But it marks a welcome shift in our city's attitude toward the poor -- and a chance to create real change with the best new practices.

Workfare was essentially a penalty for being out of work, not a legitimate opportunity to get ahead. It allowed no sick days or vacation days, and the most a participant could "earn" was full welfare benefits -- only three-fourths of the poverty level. The jobs required little or no training, offered no chance for promotion and gave workers no valuable skills. The program was meant, as City College associate professor John Krinsky noted, "to deter people from applying for aid in the first place."

Worse, workfare created a damaging public perception of the unemployed: that someone receiving government assistance was only suited for a few kinds of entry-level jobs, as if anyone who qualified for welfare would only ever be interested in, or capable of, sweeping subway stations for a living.

We know better than that now. We know that growing up poor can keep people from fulfilling their potential, leaving them with few options to improve their lives, and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. Providing educational opportunities for the chronically unemployed is an important part of breaking the cycle, as the mayor understands. To replace workfare, the city will begin offering "transitional employment programs, internships, and community service positions," Rachel Swarns wrote in the New York Times. De Blasio has already allowed welfare recipients who attend a four-year college to be exempted from the workfare program. All of these approaches generally work better than the workfare model in helping people find and keep jobs.

But to really find lasting solutions for chronic unemployment, we can't focus only on the unemployed. We have to start in childhood, with measures that help children build on their strengths and thrive despite difficult circumstances. Some of these approaches have already garnered broad support, like universal pre-kindergarten, which closes the gap for children in poverty and helps them enter kindergarten at the level of their peers.

Surprisingly, one of our best opportunities to help children find a path to a happy, healthy adulthood is still not widely used, despite a relatively low cost and years of research that shows how well it works. This is an approach based on resilience, the inner strengths, skills and attitudes that help children handle challenges. Resilience has been shown to be crucial for academic as well as lifelong success. Highly resilient students feel more confident and in control, and have better attendance and better grades. They form more positive relationships, are more resourceful, and make better decisions.

Often, children in poverty don't get the support and nurturing they need to find their inner resources. But the best thing about resilience is that it is easily taught. A program that we are implementing in our middle school after-school programs this fall, called Success Highways, helps students identify their strengths and learn how to use them. Youth advocates provide students in the program with mentoring and support. In pilot programs of more than 7000 students in major city school systems nationwide, Success Highways produced remarkable results. The program helped students improve across multiple measures, with 23 percent higher GPAs, 19 percent more courses passed, and 17 percent more credits earned.

Teachers in these studies also reported better behavior, engagement, confidence, perseverance and college and career readiness -- all qualities that prepare students for life after school. As Swarns notes, some 60 percent of welfare recipients did not graduate from high school.

Disengaged, poorly performing students have higher rates of adult unemployment and lower earnings as adults. We may not be able to change a child's circumstances, but if we can help her become more resilient, we can help change the course of her life.

The shift away from workfare is a shift toward thinking of people not as a burden, or cheap labor, but in terms of their potential. The choices we make in our educational policy should reflect that shift. The world opens up to children when they are equipped to explore it, and as a society, we all benefit when children grow up prepared to find the work, and the life, they love. Giuliani said that workfare gave people "the gift of their own independence," when in fact it sharply limited that independence. Helping children find their independence themselves may be the best gift that we can give.

Traci Donnelly is CEO and Executive Director of The Child Center of NY

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